STRANGE NEW WORLDS
It’s 2409, 30 years since the events of the Star Trek: Nemesis movie. The galaxy has become a more dangerous place. The Alpha Quadrant’s biggest powers, the Federation and the Klingon Empire, are on the verge of war. This is the perfect time and place for a massively multiplayer scrap.
That’s where Cryptic, developers of the excellent superhero MMO City of Heroes, come in. Most Trek games focus solely on either ship combat or phaser shootouts, but Cryptic didn’t want to settle for half the action. While trekking the galaxy in Star Trek Online, your avatar is a vessel tailored to your tastes, either Federation or Klingon, in which you warp from planet to planet and battle other starships. But once you beam planetside with your bridge crew, you’re a captain, firing phasers and analysing anomalies.
Your missions, which Cryptic call Episodes, call for you to fight in space and on the ground as the story unfolds.
When you begin your career, you’ll pick a field of expertise from Science, Engineering and Tactical, and earn upgraded ships as you explore. I got to play a Tactical captain, commanding a Saber class Escort vessel – Starfleet’s politically correct term for a light warship. My colleague Evan, as an Engineering captain, was beside me in his Constitution class Cruiser. Our two guides flew a Norway Cruiser and a Steamrunner Heavy Frigate.
Our mission: to rescue Lt Miral Paris, daughter of Voyager crewmembers Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres, from a Klingon named B’vat. B’vat believes her one-quarter Klingon DNA holds the key to a medical mystery that’s plagued the Klingons for over a century.
We didn’t get far in our pursuit of B’vat before Klingon ships showed up on our scanners. We dropped from full impulse speed to divert power to shields and weapons. Redirecting power between systems is the heart of ship combat in Star Trek Online, and the captain of the Steamrunner used it to full effect. Diverting all power to his shields he stormed in, drawing the Klingon battleship’s fire away from us while we mopped up the lesser ships.
You can tell just from the language it takes to describe this clash that Star Trek Online is nerd-pleasingly true to the mechanics of the series. If you haven’t always wanted to order your crew to “divert all power to shields,” you need to get out less.
Evan and I quickly took out a Bird of Prey, but I soon had a Klingon on my tail and couldn’t come about fast enough to shake him. Cryptic’s Norway came to my rescue, nailing it in place with a tractor beam while I rounded on it with my heavy frontal weaponry. But by this point the Steamrunner’s shields were critical. The Norway captain’s Science skill came in handy again, as he used his own power to boost her shields.
It took all of our combined firepower to finally cripple the Klingon battleship, at which point I finished it off with a close-range strafing attack. That may have been a bad idea. Starships’ warp cores mean they’re basically exploding space-barrels. My ship was in tatters and couldn’t possibly survive the blast at this range. Unless... I had one special ability left unused: Brace For Impact. It only protects you from hull damage for a few seconds, but that was all I needed to survive.
Last time we saw Star Trek Online, the space combat was all we were privy to. This time we got our hands on the great unknown: the on-foot Away Missions. In a flagrant violation of 24th century Starfleet regulations, a five-man away team of all four starship captains and one AI-controlled bridge officer beamed down to the planet to pursue B’vat and his captive. This was a familiar-looking dusty alien world, and lousy with Klingons – every few steps down the linear level we were face-to-face with an angry gang of Klingon warriors with disruptors and bat’leths.
Ground combat has a way to go yet, but it does feel active and fast-paced. There are no cooldown timers on basic attacks and no auto-fire; you’re tapping fire, alt fire or melee attack as fast as the animations will let you. At range you’re fairly safe: you can use passive cover by positioning yourself behind barricades, and personal shields protect you from disruptor fire. But melee attacks ignore these, and I was badly wounded by the bat’leth of a Klingon who survived our fire long enough to reach us. Luckily our Science-skilled captain was standing by with a stim to patch me up.
Our tactics changed when I found my first loot: the not very Star-Trek-sounding Phaser Gatling Shotgun. It sprays in satisfying scattered bursts in the direction you point it, rather than relying on digital dice-rolls to determine who it hits. Cryptic showed me that I could catch a whole cluster of enemies in its messy firing cone if I positioned myself well, and it quickly changed the way I played, as I naturally adopted a heavy gunner role.
That’s Cryptic’s goal: that gear should change your role, rather than your initial class choice penning you into one style forever. Each of the three disciplines: Science, Engineering and Tactical, has several sets of equipment called kits. A Tactical officer can use Soldier, Special Ops and Security kits, a Science officer can grab a Doctor or Research kit, and an Engineer can use tools to deploy turrets, drones and force field generators.
Our team found a neat sequence of attacks to take out groups of Klingons: photon grenades to knock them down, then two captains using their Phaser Pulse Rifle’s secondary beam to finish them off. But once we caught up to B’vat, he dragged Lt Paris through a glowing stone arch a more hardcore Trekkie would have instantly recognised as The Guardian of Forever: a sentient machine capable of sending people back in time. There was only one thing to do in a situation like this: recklessly follow him!
As you’re probably beginning to realise, there’s more to Star Trek’s quests that ‘Kill ten Tribbles.’ More systematic quests like that are part of the Exploration content, procedurally generated when you choose to venture into the unknown. It means Cryptic don’t have to dilute their story with grinding just to drag the game out. When you choose to do an ‘Episode’ – a story mission – you can be reasonably sure it’s going to get interesting.
Our mission certainly did. The five of us and our four ships were pulled back through time nearly 200 years, and suddenly B’vat was off in his own craft attacking the 23rd century Enterprise. Her period-accurate blue phasers did little to fend them off, so we came to her rescue. Once we finally took down his B’vat’s shields, we could beam aboard for the final showdown.
Boarding an enemy vessel is essentially an away mission, but this time – hilariously – we fought a mix of Next Generation and Original Series Klingons (the latter conspicuously pale and ridgeless). We even fought the 23rd century version of B’vat himself before we finally found the latter day Klingon in his War Room. Where, it turned out, you can indeed fight.
Even with five of us the boss fight was tough. But at last, the Klingon was felled and Lt Paris saved. We beamed back to our respective ships and returned to our own time.
Every time we’ve challenged Cryptic to support their claim that they’re making a game in the true spirit of Star Trek, and not just a reskinned World of Warcraft, they’ve convinced us. If even half the missions in Star Trek Online are this varied, elaborate and dramatic, it’s going to be a great trip.